Providence police officer charged with assault after chaos erupts at protest of Roe ruling

PROVIDENCE — Hundreds of protesters demonstrated outside the State House on Friday, voicing rage, fear and resistance to the U.S. Supreme Court decision to end the constitutional right to abortion.

Screams and shouts pierced the night as throngs of demonstrators waved homemade signs, some awash in red paint, reading "SCOTUS KILLS" and "ABORT the COURT."

A woman gazing toward the building's marble steps sported a black T-shirt on the back of which was written in pink paint: "I DISSENT" — a nod to the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

More: RI reacts to news that Supreme Court is prepared to overturn Roe v. Wade

Protesters wave "bans off our bodies" signs in support of reproductive rights at Friday's demonstration at the Rhode Island State House.
Protesters wave "bans off our bodies" signs in support of reproductive rights at Friday's demonstration at the Rhode Island State House.

Jocelyn Foye, director of The Womxn Project, which organized the rally, described the news of the Supreme Court decision as "devastating" as she watched the growing number of so-called trigger laws take effect around the nation. Thirteen states, many of which are in the South, have such laws, which are designed to ban abortions upon the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Among those in the crowd was Colleen Daley Ndoye, executive director of Project Weber/RENEW, a nonprofit center for harm reduction and recovery services. She said her primary clients are drug users and Black people. She is now worried for their future.

"It is my biggest fear and it is my biggest concern, because I know that they will be the ones who will be disproportionately impacted by any bans. Anything where rights are being limited, I know they're going to be the ones who are going to feel it," Daley Ndoye said. "Richer women, white women are going to be able to travel."

More on Roe v. Wade overturn: RI advocates warn 'a close reality that more rights can be taken'

Demonstrators hold homemade signs decrying the Supreme Court decision.
Demonstrators hold homemade signs decrying the Supreme Court decision.

Among the speakers was Jackie Anderson, a labor and delivery nurse at South County Hospital and a per-diem worker at Planned Parenthood. Her concern is that for some in the country, privacy may become a thing of the past.

"By taking away Roe v. Wade, they are stripping you of medical privacy," she said. "Yes, we still have HIPAA protections, but unfortunately, those can only take us so far. Court orders, subpoenas, discovery — all of those things can override HIPAA, which I don't think a lot of people understand."

The demonstration also attracted elected officials and political candidates, including General Treasurer Seth Magaziner, who is seeking a congressional seat.

"It’s a tragic development, and it is a scary, depressing, uncertain time for a lot of people," he said. "And I think the only real answer is that pro-choice candidates, in particular pro-choice Democrats, need to win elections. There’s really no other solution."

More: How will New England's abortion laws be affected by Roe v. Wade decision?

Chaos erupts, and Senate candidate reports assault by opponent

While much of the protest took place without incident and was well-organized, a conflict emerged during the evening after apparent counterprotesters entered the area.

A man named Josh Mello was encircled by a swath of demonstrators as a speaker took the microphone and instructed him to leave. Mello livestreamed the incident on Facebook, and shows his face toward the end of the video. An altercation breaks out around the 16-minute mark. Video filmed by journalist Bill Bartholomew shows a man in a green jacket punching Mello. (The Journal last covered Mello in 2021 when he was arrested at a disturbance at a Cranston middle school, where police say he brought three knives.)

Protesters gather on the State House steps at the start of Friday's demonstration.
Protesters gather on the State House steps at the start of Friday's demonstration.

At one point, state police rushed into the crowd and eventually arrested a different man — who was neither Mello nor the man who punched him — who had been tackled by a K-9 officer. State police told The Providence Journal they also arrested a woman.

State police later identified those arrested as Nicholas Morrell, 31, of Warwick, who was charged with disorderly conduct, possession of weapons other than firearms, and resisting arrest; and Jessica Burton, 39, of Warwick, who was charged with disorderly conduct. Both were transported to the Lincoln Woods Barracks, processed and held overnight pending arraignment Saturday morning.

Rhode Island Political Cooperative Chairwoman Jennifer Rourke, who spoke at the protest, said she was punched in the face at least twice by her challenger in the state Senate District 29 race, Jeann Lugo. .

Lugo, a Providence police officer, claimed Rourke had become physical with him, which she denied. Lugo did not deny punching Rourke, who said she filed a police report and is looking to press charges for assault.

"I'm not going to deny," Lugo told The Journal of the punching allegation. "It was very chaotic, so I can't really tell you right now. Everything happened very fast."

"To me, this feels like an act of political violence similar to the acts of violence that we have seen across the U.S.," Rourke said. "I'm a Black woman running for office. There was no need, no need for any of this. I'm not going to give up."

Police officer charged with assault, placed on paid leave

On Saturday, Providence police announced they have opened an investigation into an officer who has been on the force for three years. Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré confirmed to The Journal that the officer is Lugo.

"The Providence Police Department is criminally investigating the behavior of an off duty Providence Police Officer last evening during a protest at the Rhode Island State House where a female subject was assaulted," police spokeswoman Lindsay Lague said, adding that Lugo "was placed on administrative leave with pay this morning, pending a criminal investigation and administrative review."

Later Saturday, Lugo was arraigned on charges of simple assault and disorderly conduct before a bail commissioner at the Rhode Island State Police barracks in Lincoln. He was released on his own recognizance pending a July 8 court date, according to a news release by Providence Police spokeswoman Lindsay Lague.

Lugo announced on Saturday afternoon via Twitter that he has suspended his Senate campaign. He then deleted his account.

While the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights restricts Paré's ability to comment on such cases, he told The Journal that he saw online what had occurred.

"I saw the video last evening on social media and the behavior and physical assault on the victim is criminal and reprehensible," Paré said. "We will fully investigate."

In a statement, Mayor Jorge Elorza noted the same legal constraints placed on his comment, but said he also saw footage.

"Unfortunately, I am limited in what I can say publicly due to LEOBOR," Elorza said. "With that said, I’ve seen the video and it’s immensely disturbing. Those responsible will be held fully accountable."

Black Lives Matter RI Political Action Committee condemned the violence, called on Lugo to resign from the force and end again called for a repeal of LEOBOR.

"Without intervention, this will set a dangerous precedent for off-duty officers to be able to assault citizens as they please with little to no accountability," the group contended. "This is not the first instance of police misconduct enabled by state leadership’s lack of action on the matter of policing reform."

By Saturday night, the protest's organizers -- The Womxn Project -- released a statement saying it would "refuse to allow" the assault to become the focus of the story.

"A small group of anti-protesters came to disrupt our event, resorting at one point to physical violence to do so," the group said, adding that the rally went on "otherwise uninterrupted."

"We would like to state here that we are so proud and grateful for the people who actively worked to de-escalate and defuse the situation as it unfolded."

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: RI abortion rights rally: Providence officer charged with assault